The MFO, Tel Aviv and Cairo in 1998

In 1997, I was sent to Sinai, Egypt by the U.S. Army.  I had been stationed the previous 3 years in the Old Guard in Washington, D.C.  The Old Guard is the primary ceremonial unit for the Military District of Washington and the US Army as a whole.  White House functions.  The Tomb of the Unknowns.  Arlington National Cemetery.  The Old Guard performs all of these functions and more.

After reading about the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) in Army Magazine, I volunteered to go to Egypt by calling up my career manager in the Hoffman Building in Crystal City.  He told me that I’d need a waver to leave The Old Guard signed by my Regimental Commander.  I told him that wouldn’t be a problem.  I had a pretty good relationship with my Chain of Command.  As the HQ Platoon Sergeant for Alpha Company, I knew most of the key players in the Regiment at the time.

About a year later, I was on my way to the Sinai.

Back then, everyone heading to the Sinai had to inprocess through Fort Bragg, NC.  I hated the place.  Infantry Bureaucracy in it’s full glory.  Serving in the Infantry in the US Army is a decent gig.  I never thought to much of it.  But Bragg takes everything to the next level.  Bureaucracy.  Stupidity.  Everything.  And the Bragg Airborne mentality is such that the Airborne Soldier is the greatest thing on the planet.  Even the fat old ladies who guard the entrance to the commissary have attitudes.

After  a week, I made it out of Bragg without being court-martialed.   Airborne shuffled my way over to the Airport in Fayetteville and I was off to Egypt.  Via JFK in New York and Tel Aviv, Israel.

After about 20 hours of flying and airport time, we arrived in Tel Aviv.  it’s a different world.  Israeli Soldiers and Civilian Police stalk the corridors of the Airport with Uzis and M16s in full view.  Locked and Loaded and ready for action.  These boys AND girls aren’t playing.  I saw them tear through a couple of peoples baggage like it was nothing.  they grabbed one Arab looking fellow and carted him off to some room for God knows what.  No one is playing in Tel Aviv when it comes to security.

https://i2.wp.com/www.globalsecurity.org/military/agency/army/images/mfo-logo.gif

Our MFO liaisson meets us at the baggage carousel.  Some Staff Sergeant whose name now escapes me.  he ushers us off into a 40 pax white bus with the MFO insignia on the side.

If I remember correctly, we drive immediately for the border.  Rafah gate.  Right next to Gaza.  I admit to being nervious.  I had heard all of the stories of violence.  Suicide bombers and such.  We made it to the border without incident.  We crossed out of Israel and into Egypt.  My first 3rd World border crossing.  In and out of your vehicles.  Official Documents reviewed, stamped, reviewed again and stamped again.  And a whole lot of waiting.  On the Israel side, things were organized and clean.

Crossing over into Egypt was like crossing over into the apocalypse.  There were people camped out like refugees.  Waiting to get out of Egypt and into Israel to carry goods to markets in Israel or further on into Jordan, Syria and beyond.  There was trash strewn everywhere.  Israel is green everywhere.  Crossing over into Egypt, the green abruptly ends and in it’s place is desert sand and trash.

As we drove off, one of the MFO vets yells; “LOOK!  The Egyptian National bird!”  and points forward to where a large black plastic bag flys across the front of the bus.  We all got a good chuckle out of that.

The other thing that you immediately notice is the flies.  They are out in droves.  Flies in Egypt are a constant nuisance.  Not like in America or elsewhere.  You cross the border into Egypt and immediately you are surrounded by swarms of flies.  Cross back over into Israel and they disappear.  Perhaps, the plagues of Moses continues.

By way of explanation, one of the older MFO guys on the bus tells us that when you cross the border into Egypt, you are assigned your family of flies.  They stay with you until you PCS out of Egypt.  When you take a pass into Israel or take your mid-tour leave, your assigned family of flies awaits your return at the border.  If you listen closely, you can hear them welcoming you back upon your return.  “Hey Dave!  We missed you!”

We get through the border and arrive at North Camp about 3 hours later.  The whole process has taken about ten hours from airport to North Camp.  We’re inprocessed.  Assigned rooms.  Given our work assignments.  And then told to rest the next day.  At that months Hail and Farewell, we are all greeted and introduced around.

After about two weeks, we start to venture out.  My first foray into the Egyptian country side was Port Said.  Rob Pando, Peters and I take a weekend trip to a shopping mall and on to Port Said.  The strangest thing to happen was when Noon Prayers are called.

We are all standing on a street corner.  People buzzing all about.  Merchants.  Folks out to purchase wares at the market.  Kids begging us for a couple of Egyptian pounds.

Suddenly, the muezzin starts the call to prayer.  Instantly the streets empty.  The place is a ghost town.  No people anywhere.  I had no idea what was going on.  Three of us start walking down the street.  We look down one of the main streets and we see them.  There must be hundreds.  Possibly thousands.  In the middle of the street.  Prayers rugs out.  Bent over praying towards Mekkah.

I wish I had taken a picture.  I was too new and was fearful of giving offense.  I had never seen anything like it.  The whole town seemd to be praying towards Mekkah.

As fast as it started it finished and suddenly the streets were swarming again the mass of humanity that lives and works in Port Said.

Later, when we all became comfortable, we would visit Cairo many times.  We would also learn about the lures and beauty of Israel and especially Tel Aviv.

I favored Tel Aviv over Cairo.  There are bars and discos and beaches and women.  Tel Aviv is similar to European cities.  With enough of a mix of Americana to make it seem more at home for me.  My second trip to Tel Aviv, I met a gal (Galit Kabra) there and fell madly in love in a relationship that had no future.  But it was fun.

In our trips to Cairo, we explored the city, the Pyramids, the river and everything else.  I watched the guards at the Tomb of the Unknowns and Sadats memorial change guard once.  I saw the reviewing stand at which Sadat was assassinated.  Rob Pando and I visited Sakkara and viewed the October War Panorama (Propaganda).

I made a couple of good friends in the Sinai that year.  I had a series of outstanding experiences and visited some extraordinary places.  Petra and Jerusalem among other places.  1998 was a good year for me.

All of the pictures below were taken from 1997 to 1998.  I had an automatic 35mm film job that I got from my ex-wife.  I think it was a hand me down from her parents.  It took some decent pictures.

The Pyramids and Sphinx at the Giza Plateau

The Sphinx and Pyramid

The Sphinx and Pyramid 1998

It’s been ten years since I last visited the Giza Plateau.  Much has changed.  Ten years ago, you could walk up to the Pyramids and actually climb them.  I’m not sure if that was a good thing or not.  But it’s much better than the Disneyland like setting that surrounds them now.  It’s funny.  I don’t remember the roads.  I don’t remember the buses.  I looked at my old pictures and at least one road was there.  I can see one bus in one of the pics as well.

The last time that I was in Cairo.  Back in 1998.   Perhaps, I was there at a less busy time.  I didn’t remember the roads and such around the Pyramids.  There were a few other tourists during that visit.  Not many, though.  I rode a camel out of the desert to the Pyramids.  We came upon them from the rear.  Cairo looked far away.  It gave the illusion of being out in the desert and away from civilization.  I rode the camel to the smaller pyramids.  Dismounted my camel and walked up to the three great Pyramids.  On impulse, I started climbing.  There were a couple of Bedouin and one or two tourist police hanging around.  I got about 2/3rds of the way to the top of the Great Pyramid.  One of the tourist police started pointing his AK47 at me and yelling for me to get down.  I ignored him and continued to climb.  Nearly to the top.

It is not possible now to climb the Pyramids. The Egyptian tourism authority has laid more asphalt roads around the pyramids.  Buses actually drive up to the base of the Pyramids and offload hundreds of Japanese and European tourists each day.  Possibly thousands.  There were so many the day we were there, it was impossible to get a clear picture of the Pyramids without a Japanese or Euro tourist in the photo.  There are hundreds of vendors trying to sell scarves, cheap jewelry, small statues and all manner of trinkets.  You also have to contend with the Bedouins and their camels.  The primary push is camel rides, of course.  If they can’t get you to ride the camel, they attempt to have you sit on the camel for a picture.  If they can’t get  you to sit on the camel, they try to bully you into giving them money for taking a picture of them or their camel.  I just laughed at them and sang “La La La” to them.  La is No in Arabic.

I walked up to the Cheops Pyramid and started taking pictures of everything.  Including a little guy with a camel.  I walked up and snapped a few photos of his camel.  The little dude asked me for a cigarette.  So I gave him one.  I kept taking pics of him and his camel and everything in the area.  After a few minutes, an older Bedouin fellow walked up and demanded that I get on the camel for a pic.  I said “LA!”  He then told me to give him my camera so that he could take a pic of me with the camel.  Again, I said “LA!”  I would also say ; “Nah, I’m cool dawg.”  He started saying “Doog!  Doog?”  I laughed.  I like to throw American slang at these folks.  It throws them off.  Perplexes them.  They usually don’t know what to say to it.  Finally, he demanded that I give him money.  “Baksheesh!”  I laughed again and said “Hell no…” as I walked away laughing and singing “La La LA.”  i do a lot of singing when I’m on vacation.  I don’t know why.  I guess because I’m so happy to be out there and free.

These guys try to bully or harass tourists into giving them money.  Sometimes it works.  You’ve got these small Japanese women walking around looking lost.  Euros walking around looking bewildered.  It was quite comical.

The Pyramids and Sphinx are now surrounded by asphalt roads.  Tourist police in the hundreds walking about.  Riding camels and horses.  The tourist police try to get you to give them money as well.  Sometimes, they just see you walking by and ask you to take their picture.  If you do, they ask for “baksheesh.”  Arabic for money, I think.

Walking around Cairo, invariably you’ll have little kids running up to you whispering “Baksheesh.”  They put on these sad faces for you.  I’ve seen a group of kids laughing and playing.  Suddenly, one of them will spot a tourist and he will assume the saddest posture and look imaginable and walk up to you saying baksheesh in a low voice as if he is sad and hungry.  This was similar to the kids begging in India.

The Pyramids and the Sphinx are still magnificent.  Don’t get the wrong idea.  The asphalt does make them more accessible.  Unfortunately, the roads and buses and massive crowds detract from the beauty and mystery of these ancient monuments. It was still immensely enjoyable visiting Giza and gazing upon the Sphinx and it’s sister monuments.  And, of course, this time we had Shaimaa telling us wonderful stories and histories which made this visit all the more enjoyable.

Enjoy the pictures.

Egypt — Who says you can’t go back?

I was stationed in Egypt from 1997 to 1998 with the U.S. Army. It was my first foray into the Middle East. My unit was actually in El Gorah in the Sinai. I was part of the Multinational Force and Observers committed to patrolling the Sinai to ensure that neither Egypt nor Israel broke their treaty and placed military forces in the Sinai. It is a peacekeeping missions. One of the few of which I am aware that is successful.

The guys at El Gorah are probably on lock down right now. Poor Bastards! Nothing to do there but drink, surf the web, watch movies and hit the gym. It’s a pretty small camp. A run around the perimeter will get you your two mile run but most of that is wasteland used for the firing range, an obstacle course and a small runway and heli-pad.

While I was there, we were locked down completely for about a month. Most of the time we were allowed to take weekends in Israel or Egypt. A four hour drive West and across the Suez Canal would place you in Cairo. A four hour drive East and past Gaza would put you in Tel Aviv.

I preferred Tel Aviv. Tel Aviv is like New York on the Mediterranean. Shopping malls. Green Grass. People going about their business much like we do in America. The city of Tel Aviv is a mix of America and Europe. The city was light and airy. A beach runs from Jaffa [Joppa of Bibilcal Jonah and the Whale fame] almost all the way to Haifa. Miles and miles of beautiful beach and sunny Mediterranean Sea.

And the women…my God. The women were beautiful. Half the city looked like models out of Fredericks of Hollywood or Victoria’s Secret.

Cairo was a different setting. Different but still amazing. Cairo is an eclectic mix of Modern and Ancient. Modern day Hotels and The 73 War Panorama and the Cairo Museum set amidst the Giza Pyramids, the Mohammad Ali Mosque. Ride a camel around the desert and come at the pyramids from the rear. Walk from the pyramids to the Sphinx. Right across the street. Pizza Hut, Taco Bell and KFC. That was a bit surreal to me.

Cairo has the city of the dead. A giant cemetery. Ancient monuments to families and individuals both great and small. People living inside the cemetery. The poorest of the poor.

Walking around downtown. I distinctly remember the smell of kerosene. I couldn’t figure out why. When I asked I was told that they used kerosene to burn the human waste in the public bathrooms. A bad smell turned disgusting.

I really didn’t meet any Egyptian women in Cairo. I was hanging out with friends. After days full of sightseeing and climbing pyramids and exploring catacombs, we were pretty tired. I remember crawling down to the burial chamber of Nefertiti. The tunnel got smaller and smaller until i had to bend to make it through. At the bottom, my buddy Humberto and I took turns climbing into the sarcophagus to take pictures. Not much inside the chamber anymore. It’s all been removed by grave robbers of the antiquities authorities and placed in museums. So we spent only a few moments inside and made good our escape. Back up the tunnel to the light and fresh air. It’s an odd feeling knowing that you are under those huge pyramids.

Rolling around Cairo in a taxi cab is an adventure. I don’t think there are any rules out there. Buses have the right of way and they will take it. When a bus starts pulling over into your lane, you have no choice but to find a way to get out of it’s way. Horns are constantly blaring. A three lane road turns into 5 or 6 or 8 lanes. Drivers pay no attention to road markings. The traffic circles are chaos. Driving there makes Paris look calm and orderly.

Cairo, or al Qahira in Arabic, was an adventure for me. I can’t wait to get back and do it again. This time, I’ll be going down South. When I was there last time, I was in the Army. We were restricted from going South to Aswan and Luxor because of the terrorist activity. This time. Nothing will stop me.

Insha’allah, I will be seeing Egypt again 1-10 August 2008. Almost ten years exactly from the date that I last visited.

DAY 1: CAIRO

Arrival at Cairo airport, where our representative will be waiting for you. He will then meet and assist you through airport formalities and escort you to your hotel in Cairo, situated at the pyramids’ area. Check in and overnight at hotel in Cairo.

DAY 2: CAIRO

Today we visit the great Pyramids of Giza and their guardian Sphinx and then head to the Cairo Museum. Overnight at hotel in Cairo.

DAY 3: CAIRO – ASWAN (Cruise)

This morning we are transferred to Cairo Airport for our flight to Aswan. Then we will be escorted to embark on the Nile cruise ship-our floating hotel for the next five days. After lunch, we sail by ‘felucca’ a traditional Nile sailing boat, to view Kitcheners Island and the Agha Khan Mausoleum. Overnight in Aswan.

Optional: Abu Simbel excursion in the morning

DAY 4: ASWAN – KOMOMBO – EDFU (Cruise)

Today we visit the impressive Aswan High Dam and its huge lake, and the Temple of Philae. Then we cruise to Kom Ombo to visit the Temple shared by the Gods Sobek & Haroeris. Tonight we enjoy a special costume party featuring Native Egyptian and pharaonic style. Overnight in Edfu

DAY 5: EDFU – ESNA – LUXOR (Cruise)

This morning we explore the Temple of Horus, the falcon god. Then we sail to Esna and continue sailing to Luxor. Overnight in Luxor.

DAY 6: LUXOR (Cruise)

Today we explore the Necropolis of Thebes, the wondrous Valley of the Kings, Hatshepsut’s Temple, and the Colossi of Memnon. In the evening, we visit the Karnak and Luxor Temple. Overnight in Luxor.

DAY 7: LUXOR – CAIRO

Today we will be transferred to Luxor airport for our flight back to Cairo where we will be met and escorted to the hotel. The balance of the day is free for shopping. Overnight at hotel in Cairo.

DAY 8: CAIRO

The tour ends

We’ll have two more days in Egypt to do as we please. I’m thinking Alexandria would be a great palce to hit before we depart for home.

I did “meet” one woman in Cairo. My buddy Humberto and I were at the bar of the Moevinpick Hotel near the Airport on our first night in Cairo. We were drinking a few beers together and planning the rest of our weekend. This beautiful Egyptian girl walks past our table. I’m talking beauty. She kinda glances our way and gives us a twinkling of a smile. Humberto and I were impressed. We had heard that there were some remarkable beauties in Cairo. This girl definitely seemed to fit the bill. But as luck would have it, she was with a man. Humberto and I finished our beers and decided to cruise downtown to check out the Cairo nightlife. On the way out the door, we checked out our girl one last time. Her beau had walked away leaving us an opening. I waved at her, smiled and said; “Salaam!” She smiled at us and revealed the blackest set of teeth that I’ve seen outside of a Halloween costume party. lol I was taken aback. It was a bit difficult to recover but I managed to smile back and keep moving.

Later, I learned that many Egyptians have this discoloration problem because of the water. Lack of chlorine and such. It’s pretty shocking if you are surprised by it when trying to get all Rico Sauve on some girl in al Qahira. haha I know I was shocked.